Living with a dog that is fearful of people can be difficult. There may be a number of reasons why a dog is afraid of strangers. The potential for fearful behaviour can be inherited, or punitive training methods can cause a dog to become fearful of people, but it is more likely that a dog that is afraid of unfamiliar people will not have been well socialised as a puppy and will have missed out on essential early social interactions and experiences.
- The first step to helping a fearful dog is learning to recognise the signs of fear in a dog: the obvious signs are growling and barking. Although a dog may hide, tremble, or withdraw from a stranger, sometimes a nervous or unsure dog may jump up at a person (to provoke a response from the person so he can decide if he is safe). If the situation is prolonged, a fearful dog may pant and drool, shed hair, drink and/or urinate excessively.
- The next step is to identify what type of people the dog is fearful of. It might be all strangers and unfamiliar people or perhaps just something particular such as men, children or people wearing hats etc. Once you have established the trigger(s) then you can begin to gently help the dog to gradually change their emotional response from fear to safety through desensitisation and counterconditioning. Management is the key to success here. If you start by limiting exposure to the triggers you will prevent the behaviour becoming worse and lower the dog’s stress levels, which will in turn create a more receptive dog.
- Begin some basic training to help the dog focus and introduce a default behaviour, such as ‘look at me’, and make sure the reward for this behaviour is amazing. High value treats such as chicken or liver are good and should be reserved for this behaviour only.
- You can then introduce the ‘trigger’ in a way that the dog does not have a fearful response and then use the ‘look at me’ using the amazing treats. With numerous training sessions and sympathetic experiences, the dog will learn that the appearance of a stranger means that great things happen!
- Take it slowly and always allow the dog an escape route if needed. Slow positive steps will lead to a dog becoming more relaxed and able to cope in the presence of strangers.